My American Values

By Amy

Before now, the longest amount of time I had spent abroad was three months during a semester in Spain in college.  For Will it was about six weeks in Cuba in college.  Now that we’ve been in Indonesia over four months we are both well beyond our previous records for spending time abroad.

We’ve both been out of the United States enough times in the past to give us that initial “there’s more out there” perspective and to appreciate not only other cultures, but our own even more.  However, being gone for an extended amount of time, and living in a remote village with a family in Indonesia has really given us a new perspective on ourselves and what it means to have certain values as an American.  There are a handful of situations we’ve been in so far that have affected me on a level so deep that I realized that it was going against core values I’ve always taken for granted.  Some of these are detailed below. This post is not meant to be a list of complaints about Indonesia, or a judgement on the value of the culture here.  It’s only meant as a reflection of my own values and our values as Americans. I’ve also observed many different and positive things about the culture here, but this post is meant to be a reflection on my internal reactions.  And since we’ve only been here four months, I know this is only the tip of the iceberg.

1. Waiting in line.  Whether you are waiting in line to order at a restaurant, or for the bathroom, you better belly right up to the counter/door if you want to make your place in line known.  Otherwise someone is going to step right in front of you.  Even after four months here, I’m still completely ticked when this happens.  Don’t people realize that I was here first?!  No, actually.  They probably assume I am waiting on someone or something else because I’m standing so far back.  But it drives me, and pretty much every other volunteer bonkers–maybe I’ll adjust by the end of two years.

2. Acceptance of cheating.  In a collective society such as Indonesia, cheating is frowned upon, but accepted by many as part of the culture.  All Peace Corps Volunteers here deal with cheating in the classroom.  Many of our fellow teachers seem concerned about it, but acknowledge that the practice begins (and is sometimes encouraged) in elementary school and continues through college and feel that it’s impossible to control.  Some volunteers here choose to try everything in their power to curb it, others choose to turn a blind eye.  As Americans, cheating to us represents a character flaw, misplaced morals, and just plain unfair. When the practice is so widespread, it calls into question the quality of teachers, doctors and lawyers.  Maybe that’s unfair but it’s a connection our American brains make.  Many Indonesians don’t see cheating the same way Americans see it–maybe it’s more like working together.  In any case, seeing and dealing with cheating gives most Americans a pretty negative gut reaction.

3.  Proving that we married.  Right before we left for our permanent site, my principal informed me that Will and I would need to produce our marriage certificate to give to authorities in our town to prove that we are married since we are living together in the same room.  This should not have come as a surprise in a conservative Muslim country, and in fact, I had brought a copy of our certificate to Indonesia on the suggestion of the Peace Corps.  We gave the copy to my principal to make ten more copies and did so with a smile on our faces, but we were steaming inside.  Sure, back home we chose not to live together before we were engaged, but it was just that–a choice.  We had the choice.  Of course there are plenty of Americans that don’t believe in living together before marriage, but you don’t have to prove to the mayor or the police that you are married to live together.  That would even be against the law in many cities and towns. The fact that we were moving to a culture where we had to PROVE that we were married to share a home, when we were in fact, already married, really rubbed us the wrong way.  In addition we’ve been told it won’t hurt to carry a copy of our marriage certificate when we are traveling so that we can stay in hotels together.  Having the same last name and wedding rings means nothing here.

4.  Asking permission.  Early on in our time here, someone mentioned that it is the culture in Java to ask permission if we want to go anywhere.  I explained that as Americans this is really difficult to get our heads around as we are married, in our thirties and have been living on our own for over a decade.  And in reality, when we want to go somewhere for the day we just give our host family a heads up.  However, being told I need to ask permission to leave the house really rubbed me the wrong way! In reality, this is probably more about respecting your elders and your family–not about some sort of power trip.

5.  True religious freedom.  We haven’t talked a lot about this on our blog because it’s a sensitive topic.  While Indonesia is a fairly open country and recognizes six religions (Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism)  that means that you really aren’t supposed to be anything else outside of that.  Jewish? Nope.  What if you are a non-believer?  That’s illegal actually.  So is inter-religious marriage (depending on whose interpretation you use). You must choose one of the six religions on your national identity card. This gives me a new-found appreciation for the freedom of (or from) religion that Americans enjoy.  We have incredible freedom.  Think about what that means for you and your family.  I’ve always appreciated this quote from President Obama’s inauguration speech in 2009:

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

As I said before, these are simply observations of some fascinating gut reactions I’ve had here, not complaints. It’s been incredibly educational to have these reactions and then reflect on why I’m having them, and what they mean about me and the culture I come from. The discomfort and frustrations add to the richness of this experience in a way I couldn’t have predicted.  We have lots more (cheating-free) learning ahead of us!

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3 thoughts on “My American Values

  1. When I was traveling in China, I had the same experience with lines (or lack there of), which drove me nuts. Finally I decided to view all standing in line episodes like I was at a bar, meaning muscling in and trying to get served regardless of whoever else was there before me. After that I kept my sanity much better.

    Thanks for sharing this really interesting post!

  2. Your observations are fascinating. I even find the line jumping frustrating in italy. But perhaps more significant was my experience in going to the movies in Prague. It was pouring down rain one day when i was there on vacation and bittterly cold. The museums were closed. After 1 pm i decided to go to an afternoon movie about Czechoslavkia when the Nazis took control. I figured i knew enough about WW II that i could follow a movie in a foreign language. Besides, it got me out of the cold rain. When i arrived in the lobby, wearing jeans, a sweater and raincoat, i observed at at 2 pm the staff were wearing evening attire. two men wore tuxes. A man with a tux on played at a grand piano under a chandalier worthy of a castle. i appreciated the music but was baffled that in a former Soviet satellite state the women wore beaded dresses and fur capes to work at the 2:30 matinee.

    When i went to buy my ticket at the theater the woman in the box office showed me an enormous seating chart. I suddenly realized that she wanted me to select a seat and that, unlike the states, it was not open seating. I was mused since this was 2:30 on a Tuesday in November– not exactly a peak time to go to the movies. She motioned that the price was the same for all seats. So i began to point at seats that looked like the best seats for viewing the screen. It was a theater with perhaps 1000 seats since it was once a live theater before WWII. However each time i pointed to a seat she shook her head no. i failed perhaps 15-20 times. After i failed to find a seat acceptable to her, i shrugged and with exasperation motioned that SHE should select my seat since i clearly did not know the secret code. She grimaced and printed out an old fashioned ticket with a row. Letter and seat number. So i entered the grand theater past the grand piano and tux wearing pianist playing intense classical piano music that was probably Bartok or someone of that era.

    When i entered i went to the row/seat (about 20 rows from the stage and sort of off to the far left) and realized in this grand theater of 1000 red velvet seats and many chandeliers, there were THREE other customers and me.

    All of us, with umbrellas, wet coats, and damp heads, were placed on the same row next to one another. I laughed. So i picked another seat about four rows away behind them to make certain i did not obstruct their view. They all turned and watched me. It did not appear that they were friends but they remained together. The theater began to dim the lights.. About two minutes later a grandly suited usher came long in his 1930s era usher suit with epiletts and gold braid, and held a long and dramatic flashlight into my face and spoke animatedly. Clearly i was in the wrong seat. But the 1000 person theater still had only 4 customers. They watched me carefully. He motioned for me to return to the right seat as the music from the movie swelled and credits began. I did. But 10 mins into the movie i moved again . The other three stared at me in amazement for 30-45 seconds and turned back to the movie.

    Later i asked a Czech person visiting the US how they were so regimented about a movie matinee. She laughed and said this was a result of communism where all paid the same price but, a la Orwell, not all pigs were equal. And my picking a seat on the chart was just a silly mechanism for them to pretend it was democracy but also have a system that reflected communism–even though communism had been dead ten years. Or most of it. Besides, the young Czech woman explained that those people at the theater probably were terrified to lose their jobs. They just played by the old rules since it took a lot of time and ensured that they had jobs. To this day i find that memory very amusing. The movie was terrific and about the real Czech “Schindler” who saved almost 1500 children by sending them to be adopted in canada and Britain. It was called All My Dear (loved) Ones. It can be bought on Amazon and has English subtitles.

    We miss you.

  3. i just found your good-bye email and this blog…as i randomly scan through it i find some of your experiences the same as i had teaching in equador when i was 24…like students cheating. i thought i would expose the kids by giving each row a different multiple choice test. they copied, and i failed more than half of them. soon i was called to the headmasters office and told i couldn’t fail the kids–and about the culture of cheating.

    it got a lot worse for me; i was a failure as a 24 year old teacher…the end came one morning when the kids made me so mad i showed up at assembly without my class. everyone else had their classes in neat little rows ready to sing the anthem and salute the flag…lynda asked me where my class was and i told her i had locked the little jerks in the classroom (can you believe that!) then we looked across the soccor field at the back of my classroom and the kids were pouring out a window dropping five feet to the ground. …”will Mr. Reilich please come to the headmasters office” soon rang out over the loudspeaker. but even then they were so desperate for american teachers they wouldn’t fire me. i finally had to quit. they just laughed and told me i had lasted longer than the last several teachers of that sixth grade science class.

    i’m sure you will do much better!

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